Improved Real Madrid Pushes Barcelona to Draw in 1st Leg of Copa Clasico

Barcelona and Real Madrid played to a tense, spirited draw in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal, with younger talents rising to the occasion in place of established stars and the visitors looking much improved since their last meeting as the scene shifts back to Madrid.
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Barcelona and Real Madrid dueled to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal on Wednesday, sending the tie to the Bernabeu with all to play for in the second leg later this month.

Lucas Vazquez scored six minutes in for Real Madrid, which continued to show it's a rejuvenated side under Santiago Solari's guidance, but Malcom equalized in the 57th minute to salvage the draw and keep Barcelona level on aggregate.

Lionel Messi was left out of Barcelona's starting lineup after suffering an undisclosed leg injury over the weekend, but he did appear as a second-half substitute, coming on for the final 30 minutes. He wasn't able to give Barcelona the boost it was seeking on the scoreboard though, and the series remains finely poised with a place in the final–and for Barcelona, a chance at a fifth straight title–on the line.

Here are three thoughts on the match:

An evenly matched Clasico

Much has changed since October, that much is clear. Barcelona played Real Madrid out of Camp Nou in Julen Lopetegui's final match, winning 5-1 without Messi and putting the final nail in the manager's coffin.

Fast forward four months, and Real Madrid, while still far from perfect, is in a much better place. Los Blancos came out aggressively, pressing Barcelona and looking to attack. Karim Benzema, who is in some run of form at the moment, was even pressing Arthur for 30 yards, from inside the Real Madrid half all the way back to his own end of the field at one point. It's clear there's a new energy about Real Madrid and a confidence that is making its way through the squad.

That was evident at the start, when Vinicius Junior and Benzema set up Vazquez for his sixth-minute opener. Barcelona and Real Madrid exchanged counterpunches from that point on, with the hosts eventually finding the equalizer. Both sides missed genuine opportunities to take the lead, with Real Madrid leaving particularly aggrieved after Gareth Bale, in as a substitute for the final half hour, wasted a chance to fire into an empty net. Marc-Andre ter Stegen had raced off his line and out of the box, but his clearance could only go as far as Benzema, who picked out an open Bale at the edge of the area. The Welshman was a little too patient, and Nelson Semedo did enough on the recovery tackle to block his weak shot.

In the end, a draw was probably a deserved result for both, and it sets up a wonderful occasion for the second leg on Feb. 27.


Bale, Messi fill-ins more than up to the task

Vinicius has played a key role since Solari took over, and he's regularly started ahead of Bale as of late, but doing so on the Clasico stage is another thing entirely for an 18-year-old. Bale has the experience of playing at Camp Nou, he has the experience of beating Barcelona in the Copa del Rey and he's played under countless more pressure-packed situations than the Brazilian. Nevertheless, Vinicius never looked out of place. His decision-making wasn't always the greatest–on two occasions in the first half, for instance, better decisions and execution could have resulted in more dangerous chances–but his play was the impetus for a lot of Real Madrid's danger.

It was his ball that picked out Benzema ahead of Vazquez's early goal, and he gave the right back Semedo all he could handle with his blazing runs down the flank. There's plenty more to come from the bright rising star. 

The 21-year-old Malcom, meanwhile, has had a tough start to life at Barcelona and was the subject of many transfer rumors last month, with the club reportedly looking to offload the summer signing from Bordeaux. He finally started to justify his place on the team with an inspired showing in place of Messi. It felt like all of Barcelona's dangerous moments in the first half came with Malcom as the catalyst, none better than his getting by three defenders to pick out Luis Suarez for a great chance that was robbed by Keylor Navas. It came after Suarez had sprung him forward for a breakaway that was wrongly flagged for offside. He should have done better with the finish–which perhaps would have stood with help from VAR–but Navas made it moot with a save of his own.

He delivered the signature play of the second half with his goal, though, staying locked in and eager even after Sergio Ramos's exceptional goal clearance, which would have been the lingering talking point had Real Madrid finished off the clean sheet. Malcom persisted, though, and was rewarded for the performance that fans have been yearning to see out of him.

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A defensible decision to bench Messi

Manager Ernesto Valverde is seeing the long game. Barcelona has a Champions League last 16 first leg vs. Lyon next week. Barcelona has a lead to protect in La Liga. Wednesday was just the first leg of a domestic cup that carries importance, but not nearly the level of importance as the other two fronts on which Barcelona is currently competing. So rushing Messi back into 90-minute action after he suffered a leg injury, no matter how serious it was, simply wasn't necessary.

Barcelona also already thrashed Real Madrid without Messi earlier this season, with the Argentine missing the earlier rout at Camp Nou with a broken arm, and while Real Madrid is under new direction now and clearly in a better place, Barcelona also has a cast of talent capable of getting the job done without him.

Naturally, there was a renewed energy throughout the stadium every time he made any motion on the bench that suggested he would come on, and when he finally replaced Philippe Coutinho in the 63rd minute, Camp Nou hit a new decibel level. Messi had a few bright moments and hit one free-kick chance from a dangerous spot directly into the wall, and Barcelona will hope to have its star from the start in the coming matches and the second leg in Madrid.